Most of the time, whole-body workouts are just something you do when your week is bollixed up with appointments and you can only get to the gym a couple of times. You're having a root canal on Monday, the twins have oboe class on Wednesday, and your wife needs you to lay out some fresh mulch on Thursday.
If you don't curse your life and run away to Bora Bora first, you're stuck doing whole-body workouts on the occasional obligation-free day or weekend. Otherwise, you'd sure as hell be hitting the gym four or five time a week and doing upper body and lower body splits.
Wonder of wonders, though, a new study suggests that you build considerably more muscle when you do whole body workouts, and it's largely because the change in the ratio of two directly-oppositional muscle-regulating proteins – myostatin and follistatin – is almost twice as large when you combine upper body and lower body training.
The researchers recruited 40 middle-aged men and randomly assigned them to one of four groups:
- Upper-body resistance training
- Lower-body resistance training
- Combined resistance training (lower body and upper body)
The three resistance-training groups did three exercise sessions a week for 8 weeks. Blood samples were taken before training began and 48 hours after the last session.
Muscle mass increased significantly in all three resistance-training groups:
- The upper-body training group gained 0.76 kilograms, +/- .46 kilograms.
- The lower-body training group gained 0.90 kilograms, +/- .29 kilograms.
- The combined upper-body/lower-body training group gained 1.38 kilograms, +/- 0.70 kilograms.
Clearly, the combined training led to more muscle, but what's really interesting is how the different training regimens affected a couple of growth-regulating proteins that play a big role in determining how muscular someone (or something) is.
You've probably heard of myostatin. It's a growth factor that actually limits muscle growth in humans and other animals. You know those "double-muscled cattle" you sometimes see pictures of, the ones who look like something a CGI artist conjured up to pull Conan's corpse wagon to the gates of hell?
They have a mutation that limits the activity of myostatin, which allows them to grow enormous muscles. Most of us probably wish we had at least a mildly dysfunctional myostatin gene, but there's another growth factor that works to inhibit levels of myostatin and it's called follistatin.
When levels of follistatin increase, levels of myostatin decrease, thereby allowing more muscle growth (assuming all other factors are optimal).
As you probably guessed, resistance training increases levels of follistatin in general, but the researchers in the training study found that while lower-body training increased levels of follistatin (and decreased myostatin) more than upper-body training, whole-body training had almost twice as large an effect on the ratio of follistatin to myostatin.
It looks like the volume of muscle involved in a workout is a factor in determining how much follistatin you produce, which would logically mean that whole-body training increases its levels more than other types of body splits.
Of course, like most studies, this one doesn't perfectly mimic real life. After all, I've never met any lifters other than amputees who consistently worked just one half of their body.
It could be that when, over the course of a training week or month, the total amount of follistatin produced (and, consequently, the amount of myostatin inhibited) by performing an upper body/lower body split could approximate or equal the amount you'd get from training total body.
Regardless, at the very least, this study underscores the value of increased levels of follistatin. It's possible that you can also increase levels of the protein through diet, too. Egg yolks contain follistatin, but it's not known for certain if orally ingested follistatin actually leads to additional muscle.
Another tactic involves ingesting high levels of epicatechins, a polyphenol found in cocoa powder, dark chocolate, blackberries, and pomegranates. Aside from enhancing mitochondrial biogenesis and improving the skeletal muscles' response to exercise, increased levels of epicatechins lead to increased levels of follistatin.
Like most things that smack of legitimacy, it's worth a try to up your epicatechin intake while experimenting with a couple of months of whole-body training.
- Bagheri R et al. Effects of upper-body, lower-body, or combined resistance training on the ratio of follistatin and myostatin in middle-aged men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep; 119(9):1921-1931. PubMed.